Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Grand Opera’s Miracle Mariachi Opera Prequel Brings Something Original to the Holiday Scene

Ambitious Show Embraces Family — and Kids at the Opera

BY // 12.05.19
photography Lynn Lane

Almost a decade ago, Houston Grand Opera defied music traditions with the world premiere of the first mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, (To Cross the Face of the Moon). Composed by José “Pepe” Martínez with libretto by Leonard Foglia, who also directed the original production, Cruzar brought mariachi into national and international opera houses with great audience and critical acclaim.

Now HGO is making opera history again with the debut of the holiday themed prequel to Cruzar, El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering). The opera opens tonight and runs through December 22.

PaperCity caught up with Foglia, who once again created the story and is directing, to find out what kind of miracle it took to gift a new mariachi opera to Houston and beyond.

Family Miracles

Cruzar told a bittersweet story of elder Mexican immigrant Laurentino and the families he gained and lost when he crossed the border as a younger man. Set during Christmas time in the early 1960s, El Milagro goes back in time to see how the love between Laurentino and his first wife Renata first sparked as they grew up in the small town of Michoacán, Mexico.

José “Pepe” Martínez, who Foglia calls the the foremost mariachi composer of our time, passed away in 2016, so José’s son Javier Martínez has composed the music for El Milagro. Javier did much of the orchestration for José Martínez’s second opera, El Pasado Nunca Se Termina, when his father’s health was failing.

“He’s been involved for a while,” Foglia notes, adding that while the music of El Milagro is in the traditional mariachi style, “Javier has his own style. It’s not a mimic of his father’s work, which is the way it should be.”

Foglia certainly didn’t set out to write a new, prequel chapter, in the Renata and Laurentino love story. Yet after he directed HGO’s world premiere Christmas opera It’s a Wonderful Life in 2016, HGO artistic director, Patrick Summers, asked Foglia if he wanted to create his own holiday offering. At first, Foglia said no, but that soon changed when he contemplated revisiting the lives introduced in Cruzar.

“I gave it some thought and realized there was a lot to tell about these characters in their life back in Mexico prior to the bulk in Cruzar, which happens in the United States 50 years later, about who they were as people before they came here,” he says.

HGO – El Milagro del Recuerdo – 2019 – Photographer Lynn Lane-130_edit (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Cecilia Duarte as Renta and Daniel Noyola as Laurentino. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

After Cruzar became an international success, Foglia admits his first reaction to writing another one was — “O.K, let’s not mess with it. Let’s leave it alone.”

“But then I realized that was sort of arrogant of me, as if there’s only one Mexican story and that’s all we need to tell. That’s like saying there’s only one story about Texas. There’s more to tell about these people and I love revisiting them.”

Foglia takes on two roles behind the production as both librettist and director, but he say that doesn’t necessarily make either job easier.

“I find every once in a while I’ve written myself into a corner and I want to say: Where is that librettist? What has he done to me?.” he says.

But wearing two creative hats does have its benefits. “The advantage I have is that if something is hard to stage, I can rewrite it,” he says.

Origins of Love

As we discussed the rarity of creating an opera prequel, Foglia jokes that in some ways opera lovers can view El Milagro as an origin story for the characters of Cruzar, and then with a laugh mentions the biggest film origin story of the year.

“I haven’t gone to see The Joker. What’s held me back is that I haven’t watched all those movies. I don’t know all those characters are, but I presume the filmmakers are smart enough to say someone should be able to walk in and just see this. And that’s what was important here,” he says.

“The main goal in writing this is that you shouldn’t have to know Cruzar at all.”

As HGO’s holiday offering the prequel also has another difference from the original.

“The story in Cruzar is ultimately a sad one, and that’s not what the focus is here,” Foglia says. “The focus is family and their lives.”

Foglia hopes this focus will also reflect audiences who come to El Milagro and that Houston will follow the Mexican tradition of bringing the whole family to holiday and theatrical events.

“Mexican families go everywhere together. The first time I saw people walking into the theater with young children, I first thought: Oh my god they’re going to ruin the show. Then I relaxed and thought “This is wonderful.’

“They’re not going to leave the kids home with the babysitter, they’re going to bring them.”

Songs of Memories

When I asked if the title resonates beyond the holiday theme, Foglia revealed its universal significance.

“I always thought in Cruzar, Renata and Laurentino the two main characters, were good people who made bad decisions. They made them for the right reasons, but they got a little bit off track about why they were together in life,” he says.

El Milagro will answer that why question and show audience the love between these two created characters but perhaps also capture that miracle many people receive at some special moment in their lives.

“The miracle is when you remember that moment you first looked into someone eyes and you remember why you loved them, and remember you that first touch, remember that connection that brought you together,” Foglia tells PaperCity. “We all forget as our lives go on and get busy. I think it’s kind of a miracle when we remember the purity of that first thing that brought you together.”

Houston Grand Opera’s El Milagro del Recuerdo runs now through December 22.

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